Full disclosure, I HATED “Liquid Swords”, the first few times I heard it.
Sacrilegious, I know.
And this is not because I didn’t like the Wu-Tang Clan either— I had great love and admiration for them, proudly owning two Ghostface albums, two of the group’s solo albums, Method Man’s, “Tical”, and Raekwon’s, “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx.”
Alas, I was 17, and I didn’t know any better. I also thought Kirk Hammett and Jimmy Page were, and forever would be, the greatest guitar players walking the face of the planet, so… yes, there is that.
Previous to purchasing the album, I’d heard only one of its tracks, “Shadowboxin’”, in which GZA duets with Method Man.
It’s a sharp track, and a showcase for arguably, the two most clever rappers in the group.
Off the strength of that, and the fact that most everyone seemed to agree that, “Liquid Swords” was perhaps THE BEST Wu-Tang solo album of all time, I made my purchase, ready to have my mind blown.
Most likely, I bought the album sometime in February or March of 2005. For those who don’t know, March is perhaps the worst month of the year in the midwest. You’re unlikely to see the sun, and everything is just cold, damp, and unpleasant. Listening to the album, in my parent’s mini-van (driving in true suburban style), I seem only to recall lifeless, bleak vistas passing me by, further amplifying what I was feeling in the music.
My initial listening experiences were mostly joyless, bordering on exhausting. It was clear to me that GZA could R-A-P, but the album was un-relenting in how dour it was. Upon arriving at the final track, “B.I.B.L.E.”, I remember finding more joy than I can say.
An outlier, B.I.B.L.E. is celebratory, either outright, or (certainly) in comparison to its peers on the album. And that’s the point. It’s a light at the end of the tunnel, or perhaps, a particularly arresting and beautiful sunrise, after a long slog through a cold, vicious night.
At one point, I was ready to give up on trying to crack the album, but then things changed. This change was brought about by one of the album’s standouts, “Labels.”
As mentioned earlier, GZA is one of the most clever rappers in the group when it comes to wordplay. It’s basically between him and Method Man, and perhaps, early 2000s era-Ghostface. On “Labels” he creates a coherent, and pretty damn incredible piece of music more or less, using only the names of major label record companies to craft his narrative.
Some might argue that this is simply a technical exercise– not unlike what the shred guitarists do, because they want to talk shit about how they were able to work some whole-tone fragment over a minor 7th chord, with a flatted 5th.
What saves things here is that there’s a playfulness about GZA’s rapping. This playfulness is largely absent throughout the rest of the album, so it’s a welcome respite in this case, essentially, an interlude at the album’s halfway mark.
In any case, once I was able to appreciate, “Labels”, pretty much everything else on the album fell into line. I was able to accept, and eventually embrace the darkness of the music. The year following, this would become one of my go-to albums once the weather got cold, and the days started getting shorter.
There are any number of articles, features, and perhaps, books documenting the lyrical prowess of GZA, so I’m not sure if I can add anything to the proceedings. The same goes for RZA’s production, which might be at his early-career pinnacle here, particularly on, “Swordsman”, “Cold World” (where he flips a Frank Zappa sample), and “4th Chamber”, which also features barn-burner verses from both himself and Ghostface.
I think one of the reasons I love the album so much is because it also paints a very particular picture of New York, and it’s not a flattering one. As someone who can’t stand to be in that city for more than 2 to 3 days at a time, I appreciate the album’s wariness and cynicism. Some of these songs wouldn’t be out of place in a horror movie, and they’re the antithesis of something like, “Empire State of Mind”.
The album is dense, and while perhaps difficult at first, it’s ultimately a hypnotic and compulsive listening experience.
It’s music for a rainy day, a bone-chillingly cold night, or making art in the wee hours.
It’s a master-class in storytelling and narrative, and something that everyone should have as a part of their music collection.